May 9, 2013

On Recasting the Self for Freedom

Watch this.

I sincerely ask you to take ten minutes out of your day and watch this clip from  David Foster Wallaces's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.

I sincerely ask because this is a rare case of stumbling across someone else expressing your thoughts far better than you thought possible. It is synchronous that this was sent today, since it ties in perfectly to another quote from Janna Smith's "An Absorbing Errand:" "This slight recasting of self is an essential aspect of our liberty. We control little, but through our choices of where we put our effort, we can inflect our idea of ourselves in small but crucial ways."

Every day as we march through our lives, we are constantly reciting stories to ourselves: who we are, why we are doing what we are doing, why others are doing what they are doing, why the world is as it is. These stories are mostly unconscious  mostly invisible, but incredibly powerful.

Orsen Scott Card gave a good example in one of his books that I have forgotten: let us say that you have been doing X for a long time. One day you visit the doctor and they diagnose you with some sort of illness of the body or mind. Suddenly, you are not just yourself who has done X for ever and ever, you are you who is battling this illness, valiantly continuing to do X despite the increased odds. The task is no longer routine, but concrete proof of your strength and resilience.

This recasting of self- telling yourself a different story- can change your perception of life dramatically  Two more examples: cooking is not one of my most favorite tasks on a given day. However, now that I am me qua lady with a blog, I go into the kitchen with this mindset: what can I learn from this experience? How can I express what I am learning on my blog? It certainly makes cooking more enjoyable.

Or, when I entered into a period of melancholia, I felt a victim to my emotions. They were larger, necessary, brought on by unseen terrors and evil. I had no control.  Now, I know I am no martyr and this bout of melancholia is not some supernatural curse much less the necessity of life. Instead, I tell myself that this time will pass, was probably caused by not enough food or sleep, and that I have a handful of things to control it. Rather than having my mood be an uncontrollable force to which I am a victim, it is something I can manage. 

The freedom of choice, the recasting of self, happens two ways. First, you can recast the world outside of you. This includes the events which happen to you, the people you mean, and the settings you are in. Second, you can recast the narrative you are telling yourself about who you are and why you do what you do.

It shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that this skill is essential for a Neo-Aristocrat. It may even be the principle quality of an Aristocrat, though I need to think on that a bit more.

But it's not enough to just recast the world to make it more manageable  Make the choice to see the world more beautifully, fantastically, and truly. With no evidence to the contrary, think of people as noble and any deviation from their inherent nobility comes as the result of overwhelming odds which you can not begin to imagine. Why should events have mundane causes? A traffic jam might not be the result of aliens descending to attack the highway, but it could be because someone stopped to allow a family of ducks and ducklings to cross the road. Or a woman is giving birth and people have gathered to offer aid and support.

This skill is difficult. It requires attention, imagination, and will. It requires that we step out of our comfortable roles as center of the world. It will not always be achievable, but I can't imagine living life without it.


  1. (Edit from the first try.)

    This is a powerful, beautiful statement. It gives pause to honor your way of 'Know Thyself.'

    I'd like to draw others' attention to this particular entry. Might I do so?

    1. I would be honored if you did. Thank you!